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Top Paying Undergraduate Degree Majors: Which List is Right?


The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) released their annual list of top 15 paying undergraduate majors yesterday.

They are a little late: We released the PayScale list of salary by major last week 🙂

While the top level take away – starting pay is highest for engineering and other technical fields – the differences are an interesting look into how a survey is defined affects the results.

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Here is the top 15 majors by starting median pay (~2 years after graduation) in the PayScale report:

PayScale Top Paying Degrees
Starting Median Pay
Chemical Engineering $65,700
Computer Engineering $61,700
Occupational Therapy $61,300
Electrical Engineering $60,200
Aerospace Engineering $59,600
Mechanical Engineering $58,900
Industrial Engineering $57,100
Computer Science $56,400
Civil Engineering $55,100
Nursing $54,900
Environmental Engineering $53,400
Construction Management $53,400
Management Information Systems $51,900
Physics $51,100
Computing and Information Systems $50,900

Here is the NACE top 15:


While there is a lot in common, there are some obvious differences:

  • No Petroleum Engineering on PayScale list
    • This shows our east coast bias: if MIT doesn’t offer it as a major for undergraduates, it is not a real engineering major 🙂
    • Actually, we focused on the 75 most common majors; Petroleum engineering is just not very common.
    • Several other specialized majors are too small to make the PayScale list
      • Mining Engineering
      • Systems Engineering (unless this means computer and information systems)
      • Engineering Technology (could be because we subdivided by type of technology)
      • Actuarial Science
      • Agricultural Engineering
      • Biomedical Engineering
    • Note that NACE considers 70 majors, while we consider 75;
    • I don’t know how they can fit these niche majors into that short of a list
    • At PayScale we estimate there are over 1000 distinct majors offered in the US.
    • We will lexpand PayScale list of majors next year; Petroleum Engineering may top the list then
  • No Nursing (BSN) on NACE list
    • Nursing is a huge undergraduate major, even at the Bachelor’s level (many RNs have Associate’s degrees)
    • I have two reasons it is not on the NACE list
      • NACE only surveys 200 universities, PayScale includes all 2,500 US bachelor’s granting institutions
      • Nursing is a more popular major at smaller and less prestigious universities; likely not in NACE’s 200
      • For example, I am sure Loma Linda University, which we had as the school with the highest paid graduates to start, is not in the NACE 200.
      • Another possibility is that nursing is just outside the top 15, pushed out by the specialty degrees
    • A similar argument goes for Occupational Therapy as an undergraduate major.

Of the majors in common, it is astounding how similar the PayScale median pay (total cash comp after two years on the job) is to the NACE average starting salary (accepted job offer; I assume “average” mean arithmetic mean).

Of the 7 in common all are within 2.2%; the largest differences are the PayScale value for Industrial Engineering is 2.2% below NACE, and the PayScale value for Computer Engineering is 1.2% above.

PayScale is 5.8% higher for Aerospace/Aeronautical Engineering, but that is likely because these are slightly different majors, or are at least the schools that grant each are slightly different. MIT calls it Aeronautics and Astronautics; maybe we should switch 🙂

I am not surprised the mean and median give the same answer for starting pay: these tend to be less heavy tailed (subject to the Bill Gates effect) and also symmetric. Hence, with enough statistics, median and mean will give the same answer.

I am also not surprised that pay does not change that much in the first couple of years. Once a company has an engineer, particularly for a high demand specialty, there is less reason to bump up what is already a high pay after only a couple years of experience.

How does your pay compare? When you want powerful salary data and comparisons customized for your exact position or job offer, build a complete profile by taking PayScale’s salary evaluation survey.


Al Lee

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